St. Stephen's Day (26 December)
This day marks the death of the early church's first martyr, the deacon Stephen. As with most of the saint-days, and as with Christmas, no one knows the actual day. The early church probably put it next to the day of the newborn Jesus to remind us of the adult Jesus and what following Jesus can lead to. The church honors those who die for the faith, but you don't have to die for the faith to be a martyr. The Greek word martur simply means 'witness', and witness is borne by the living. But the ultimate witness of a martyr is to be so clear about Christ that you get executed just like Christ.
To be honest, Stephen's approach and timing left a lot to be desired. He basically clobbered them over the head with their complicity in the sin of the world. None of Paul's "Come, let us reason" stuff. (But then, Paul/Saul was there, and he wasn't into that, either. At least, not yet.) There wasn't much "showing them your love" in Stephen's speech, no "wooing them into the Kingdom". It was very much the talk of a fired-up rough-edged recent convert, heavy on the harsh parts of the truth. Take this offensiveness (7:51), which sounds like blasphemy (6:11-14), add a dollop of fomentation from the likes of Saul, and voila! Stoning. A legal stoning, given the charge and the required witnesses (7:38). One dead martyr. Killing is not justified over words, no matter what the words were, but few ask about justice or righteousness when in the midst of anger.
There are wiser, more effective, more Christlike ways to bring people the truth of Christ than what Stephen did. And ever since Stephen, there have been those who seem to run to their deaths. Some Christians will speak so much of the martyrs that they forget that the martyred dead are a relative few. A martyr's presence does not always signal a massive societal oppression of Christians; it only takes one to murder. But no matter how much of an edge is taken off of it, Christian witness will always be dangerous. It strikes too deep, rings too true, calls for too much change, too much giving up of one's self. There will always be people who will identify it as a threat to the way they live - and rightly so. Stephen's example is that you bear witness anyway, despite the risk, and forgive those who try to do you in, just as Christ forgave those who killed Him. It is Stephen's witness to Christ in truth-telling and forgiveness even into death which made him a true martyr and a real example for us.
Father, make out of us a witness to Your Son -- bold, yet wise; daring, yet truthful; confident in the face of persecution and even death. In the name of Death's Conqueror, Jesus the Christ, Amen.